Artist Interview

Sordid Magicans: Interveiw with painter Dan Talbot

'Toaster" oil on linen by Dan Talbot

This an excerpt from an interview I did with Dan Talbot ahead of his exhibition at the AS220 Project Space. The full interview can be found here. Dan's exhibit at the Project Space opens Sunday, November 6 and runs through November 28.

We talked recently about how you have been studying Mandarin Chinese. You mentioned how you thought that the nature of the language might enhance visual comprehension in the sense of apprehending an object and rendering it. Could you talk a little about that and the way you translate you observations into your plein air paintings.

Oh, that was just me speculating about something I don't really know about. First off, with me and mandarin, I'm learning the audible aspect of the language, and not the written form. And what does this have to do with my painting? Well, I try as a part of my personal mental maintenance to have a daily activity that compels me to focus on some type of new information. Both landscape painting and Mandarin are ways that I can do this. And I suppose that straining my ear to here the tone of a certain syllable is similar to trying to identify a certain color.

But more than this, learning Mandarin reminds me of teaching myself to play guitar when I was 13. It's very math-rocky. I keep hearing the sentences as these little esoteric combinations of sounds made up of smaller modular units. It seems more viral than visual language, more like music in that a particular combination of sounds will get stuck in my head and then will endlessly replay itself. I'm walking around now repeating phrases of Mandarin to myself all the time. I don't even know what I'm saying half the time. This sort of thing doesn't seem to happen with painting. We might be able to recognize something visually, but most people can't hold the discrete parts of a painting in their minds as clearly as they can with the sound of someone's voice or with music. At least I can't. I was thinking that as a species we seem to own our verbal and musical capacities to a greater extent than our visual ones. Visual language seems less codified, more formless. Pictures are dependent on a medium to be experienced or communicated, which might be why image-makers seem a bit like magicians and also a bit sordid. They seem to be pulling this language out of nothing and then turning it into something physical. Of course now we have technology to do this. It's not really the same thing though.

"Mother's Day" oil on canvas by Dan Talbot

However - and this brings me back to your original question - perhaps this is to some extent a cultural thing. I spent a lot of time with someone who spoke and wrote Mandarin fluently from an early age. I was always amazed at her ability to succinctly break down and represent the stuff she was seeing when drawing. It seemed she had a more concrete sense of visual grammar than I did. I wondered if that sense could have been developed by learning to write with Chinese characters at an early age, which is apparently a very difficult thing to learn to do even for native speakers compared with learning to write with an alphabet. In any case this is all speculation based on my observations of one particular person. Maybe I was just trying to explain to myself why she could draw better than I could.
Incidentally, this artist I'm talking about, Elaine Wang, didn't have much interest in depicting particular colors like I do. And, I've noticed that in my landscape painting, the way I place colors down next to each other reminds me of the way I place words down next to each other to form a sentence. Maybe, what seemed in her field of vision like a word or character would seem like a phrase or paragraph to me. I don't know. These are all anecdotal observations. I like thinking about this stuff but I probably don't know what I'm talking about.

read the full interview here